Ken Jones: Pundits' superfluous technical analysis clouds the picture

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The Independent Online

A thriving feature of sports coverage today is the widespread availability of technical information. Anyone who hasn't yet worked out the difference between a diamond formation and a flat four, who remains blind to reverse swing, lines of running and the importance of club selection simply hasn't been paying attention.

A thriving feature of sports coverage today is the widespread availability of technical information. Anyone who hasn't yet worked out the difference between a diamond formation and a flat four, who remains blind to reverse swing, lines of running and the importance of club selection simply hasn't been paying attention.

This is the age of analysis. Look beyond the hoopla of football's forthcoming European Championship, the paraphernalia of patriotic promotion and get ready for an onslaught of dedicated punditry. Courage, the will to win, concentration and imagination are central to the success of any sporting endeavour but now the game plan is all.

Last week, in the gap between England's faltering performance against Japan and an easily obtained victory over Iceland, who barely attained the standard required of a team in the Nationwide League, a debate raged over what system would best suit the players Sven Goran Eriksson intends to call upon for the game against France on Sunday. Both on television and newspapers it was concluded that the diamond was flawed, that the more conventional shape used against Iceland was the answer.

Strategy, shmategy. Football is a blaze of colour; swift, explosive, spontaneous. Which should be more than enough to involve the fans. Instead they have been persuaded to believe, and have taken up willingly, the notion that enjoyment is enhanced by a deeper understanding of technical detail.

Each of us brings our own sensibility and neuroses to the sports stadium, enabling us to find whatever we want there, from fun and games to hero and scapegoat. Now, as an old football manager puts it, "everybody comes on like a bloody expert."

How long is it since Matt Busby warned that too much "mind" would eventually prove detrimental to football as a spectacle? How long since I heard Bill Shankly speak in retirement about the importance of simplicity? Asked by a budding coach for the secret of the game Shankly said: "You never let attackers turn, and if they do track them down quickly. Never put the ball at risk in your own penalty area, and always support the man on the ball." He took for granted the understanding that this formula for success depended on the ability to control and pass. "Surely there is more to it that that," the pupil said. Shankly looked at him with withering eyes. "Jesus Christ," he said, "what more do you want?"

In December 1965, on a cold night in Madrid six months before England achieved their only success in a major football tournament, Alf Ramsey uncharacteristically introduced football writers to the system - one few had identified - he employed in securing a 2-0 victory over Spain. A columnist of the old school whose mind was more on the spectacle than the game, ridiculed Ramsey's seminal 4-3-3 as a "numbers racket" from which no good could possibly come.

Times have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better. In their eagerness to display tactical knowledge, today's commentators and reporters often overlook critical events in play. Try to analyse the breakdown of a move. Did it fail because the passer panicked in the face of an urgent challenge? Or because he didn't get enough time? Or because instructions issued by the coach were not appropriate to the moment? Or because a runner didn't go where he was supposed to go? Or because the defence anticipated the pass and the passer didn't have another option in his head? Or because a speck of dust got in someone's eye or a gust of wind came along?

As the preacher said - many attend, few comprehend. But innocence is its own reward and a state to be devoutly wished for in the sports degenerate. Perhaps the only way to properly enjoy games is simply to look at them simply. Gradually it may be sinking in that nobody knows exactly what is going on out there. This realisation may induce a state of melancholia among many, but think of the dividends in expanded consciousness.

The enthusiasm for detailed analysis of games, aided in some sectors by electronic wizardry, is not, however, likely to be reversed. Tune into any golf tournament, particularly - typically you may think - those transmitted from the United States and you are sure to be shown a breakdown of the leading players' swings. Frankly this does nothing for my enjoyment.

Last week, a break in play during the second Test between England and New Zealand provided Paul Allott to acquaint customers of Sky television with the intricacies of swing bowling. Even David Gower looked baffled. It took me back many years to when the former Australian batsman Jack Fingleton was a member of the BBC Radio commentary team. At the fall of a wicket comments were called for. One opinion was that the figure departing for the pavilion had played outside the line, another that he hadn't got to the pitch of the ball. Fingleton was a model of brevity. "Played a bad shot," he said. It was my sort of analysis.

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